A sudden headache while exercising can indicate a primary headache which is usually benign. On the other hand, some headaches are secondary to health conditions which in rare instances might indicate a serious of even life-threatening condition.
A doctor should be consulted to rule out dangerous conditions if an individual experiences a sudden headache while exercising, especially if the individual has not experienced one before. If the individual had a sudden, intense headache along with diminished level of consciousness or visual disturbances, it is essential to seek immediate medical care.
A primary exercise headache or exertional headache can occur during or after strenuous and vigorous exercise such as basketball, running, weight lifting or tennis. A headache can also be triggered by sexual intercourse.
Take note that these headaches are believed to be caused by dilated blood vessels within the skull. Other possible causes of exertional headaches include exercise under heat, high altitudes or humidity. The throbbing sensation that usually affects both sides of the head is symptomatic of an exercise-induced headache. In most cases, the symptoms can range from 5 minutes up to 48 hours.
Secondary headaches are due to medical conditions such as benign or malignant tumors, sinus infections, blockage in the cerebrospinal fluid flow, subarachnoid hemorrhage, diminished blood flow in the arteries and bleeding between the brain and membranous cover.
When it comes to a secondary headache, the symptoms include throbbing pain, stiff neck, vomiting as well as loss of consciousness and double vision that persists for at least a day and last for several days. Other possible causes of secondary headaches include migraine, anabolic steroid use and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
When to seek medical care
Cerebral aneurysm is one of the causes of subarachnoid hemorrhage which can be a life-threatening emergency. The causes of subarachnoid hemorrhage include a bleeding disorder, head injury, disfigured arteries to or inside the brain and using blood thinners.
The main symptom of a subarachnoid hemorrhage is an intense headache with an abrupt onset. The pain is often worse at the area close to the skull and can start with abrupt snapping or popping sensation in the head. The other symptoms include confusion, diminished consciousness, neck and shoulder pain, light sensitivity, stiff neck, double vision, seizure or blind spots. Take note that the pupils appear in varying sizes while the eyelids droop. It is vital to seek emergency care once any of these symptoms are present.
A benign primary exercise headache is managed with blood pressure medications or an anti-inflammatory drug. The individual can use over-the-counter pain medications, perform proper warm-up before a workout as well as avoid exercising in warm or humid conditions.
Secondary headaches caused by migraines are managed with over-the-counter or prescription medications. As for cases due to subarachnoid hemorrhage, it requires aggressive treatment.